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A Doctor Without Borders

An Atlanta physician retires after building a network that treats Jewish patients from Ukraine to Ethiopia

Benyamin Cohen
December 11, 2012
Stephen Kutner, standing right, in Ethiopia in 2011.(Courtesy JHI)
Stephen Kutner, standing right, in Ethiopia in 2011.(Courtesy JHI)

Last month, a 29-year-old man from a small village in Ethiopia awoke in a suburban Atlanta hospital. Hours before, doctors had performed on his heart life-saving triple-valve surgery, the first ever at this medical center. Still bleary-eyed, Eyasu Minas Woldekirkos was told he was going to live—and he didn’t have to pay a dime for the operation. Everything was donated, from his flight to America to the operation to the valves themselves—a gift orchestrated by Jewish Healthcare International, a nonprofit helmed by an Atlanta physician named Stephen Kutner.

What did Kutner do after hearing about Woldekirkos’ successful operation? He retired.

“It’s time for a new generation,” the 79-year-old doctor recently told Tablet. “I’m a free agent now.”

Being a free agent doesn’t mean Kutner plans to have much free time. He’s already been appointed to the board of governors at the Jewish Agency, and he’s working on a number of medical projects with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. He has two sons—David works in construction sales in Alabama, and Rob writes comedy for Conan in Los Angeles—and four grandkids who occupy what’s left of his spare time. So, retiring from the organization he founded a decade ago is more a shift in focus than a traditional retirement.

The decision didn’t come easy for Kutner, who single-handedly stitched together JHI’s financial framework, cobbling together annual grants from Jewish Federations up and down the East Coast. The group works on a shoestring budget—about $450,000 a year—and Kutner actually convinced fellow doctors to pay their own way for the jaunts to far-off countries by explaining to them that these trips were life-changing opportunities: After all, one had been so for him.

Kutner’s path to starting JHI, a nonprofit akin to a Jewish version of Doctors Without Borders, wasn’t so self-evident. He grew up the son of a New York City cop in a middle-class Long Island neighborhood without much connection to his family’s Jewish roots. He served three years in the Navy and emerged thinking he wanted to go into the nebulous field of “aerospace medicine.” He eventually focused his medical attention on the eyes: “I realized that ophthalmology was the window to the body,” he said. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, he was invited to Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta, one of the country’s busiest trauma centers. “I turned into a MASH doctor,” he said. “The worse a case was, the more challenging it was, the better it was.”

But Kutner’s vision for his personal life was crystalized during a late 1970s trip to Israel with his wife, Jeanney. “It was a revelation,” he recalled. “I saw an incredible country. It really got me. It was like a flame of yiddishkeit that just started exploding.” The trip was short and he wanted more. So, he did what any doctor with time on his hands would do: He jumped into the deep end, volunteering for the Israelis by performing trauma surgeries during the 1982 Lebanon War. “I started changing,” he explained. “This is what I wanted to be doing. This is the place where I wanted to be.”

It wasn’t long before his reputation grew as a doctor literally without borders. In 1987, he was invited to a tiny village in Ethiopia to perform multiple surgeries, but he almost didn’t make it when his father passed away a week before the trip. “I was torn. Should I cancel?” he remembered wondering. He went to his rabbi for advice and was told that the greatest mitzvah he could do for his dad’s memory was to go help people. That was the only nudge he needed. “Those two weeks I was in Ethiopia really changed my life,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m having a messianic moment. Good God, what is happening to me?’ ”

Hoping to bottle that moment, he founded a small nonprofit called Project Vision, creating a platform for him to traipse around the globe, literally giving sight to those who couldn’t see. The group focused most of its work—vision restoration, screening, teaching, equipment donation—in Israel. With the influx of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, the need for medical care for new olim soon extended far beyond ophthalmology. That’s when Kutner and a few of his friends started Jewish Healthcare International. “People thought we were nuts,” he recalled of those early days.

Founded in 2000, JHI sends doctors around the globe. They provide health services to Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus). In Ethiopia, JHI provides medical screenings for people planning to make aliyah, as well as for others. (Kutner doesn’t think that Woldekirkos, for example, is Jewish, but when he came to a JHI clinic in Ethiopia, a doctor decided to try to save him; “We’re non-sectarian,” Kutner told me, “and we just wanted to help.”) JHI doctors also work at absorption centers in Israel, helping screen new immigrants for medical issues. Nowadays, the bulk of their work is at Israeli youth villages, where recent immigrants and disadvantaged young Israelis live. The organization has a databank of more than 500 doctors at their disposal, with funding coming from individual donations, family foundations, and grants from Jewish Federations. JHI also works on many projects with Project Vision, where Kutner remains CEO.

What started more than a decade ago as something small has now turned global, going beyond the Jewish community. JHI doctors have been dispatched to Haiti after the 2011 earthquake and to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and they have helped people in El Salvador and Argentina. Now they’re branching out online by offering video conferencing programs where they educate local healthcare professionals abroad.

“Steve is an absolute dynamo,” said Jerry Kobrin, a Minnesota doctor and the new chairman of JHI. “He is a tireless volunteer and a wonderfully overwhelming character.”

Kutner’s son Rob, who accompanied his dad on one of those early missions to the former Soviet Union, is less delicate with his praise. “At home we tease my dad because he won’t ever shut up about JHI,” he told Tablet. “But that’s because his mind literally can’t stop thinking of ways to fix the world. It’s really his heart that won’t shut up, and that’s a good thing.”

But for now at least, when it comes to JHI, Kutner is going to quiet down. Citing Steve Jobs’ relationship with Apple, he says he doesn’t have “Founder’s Syndrome”—“I don’t need the glory. I don’t need the credit,” he said—and is optimistic about the group’s future.

Kobrin admits it’s an uphill battle without Kutner at the helm, working the phones, charming donations out of everyone he meets. But Kobrin and his team have a trick up their sleeve: In addition to various fundraising initiatives, they are working on a massive banquet to honor Kutner that they hope to hold in the spring.

Assuming he’s up to it, in attendance will be Eyasu Minas Woldekirkos. The young Ethiopian, with a newly working heart, would like to publicly thank Kutner for saving his life.


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Benyamin Cohen is the author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith.

Benyamin Cohen is the author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith.